It felt like a stunning breach of those fading and soon-to-be-forgotten things that Americans call “norms” when the U.S. Attorney for Philadelphia, William McSwain, responded to a nationally televised standoff in which a gunman wounded six city cops by lashing out ... not at the gunman, but at Philadelphia’s Democratic district attorney, Larry Krasner.
“There is a new culture of disrespect for law enforcement in this City that is promoted and championed by District Attorney Larry Krasner – and I am fed up with it,” McSwain said in a statement that many viewed as extraordinary. (Krasner had, in fact, negotiated for the shooter’s surrender.) Yet it also seemed par for the course for a federal prosecutor who sees his main job less as locking up bad guys and more as “owning the libs” with right-wing talk radio talking points — whether it’s fighting the city’s plan to keep drug users alive at supervised injection sites or railing against “sanctuary cities.”
Want to complain to McSwain’s boss about his over-the-top politicization of American justice here in Philadelphia? Heh, well, good luck finding Attorney General William Barr, who spent a good chunk of his summer on an itinerary more befitting a ’70s hippie college backpacker, jetting to Rome, London, and God knows where else. Presumably, the nation’s top law enforcement official was working with his international counterparts to smash a global terror ring, or stop the transoceanic flow of drugs, right?
Well, actually, how William Barr spent your summer vacation was largely chasing down insane conspiracy theories that live largely on the Fox News Channel and inside the muddled brain of America’s 45th president. He was trying to jump-start an investigation meant to show that what eventually became Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was the result of a vast FBI/CIA/"Deep State" conspiracy — and not the well-established fact that Russia actually did interfere in our election and there were a lot of weird contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.
And the mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world of William Barr didn’t end with his lampoonable European vacation. This all happened after the attorney general’s yeoman’s work in sugarcoating Mueller’s eventual report to make sure it landed with a “thud” that deadened (for a time, anyway) calls for his boss’ impeachment. And it was before Justice Department lawyers took the extraordinary step of trying to shut down a New York state probe seeking Donald Trump’s tax returns, arguing that a sitting U.S. president is not just above the law but can’t even be investigated.
Hard to believe, Harry, but Barr has only been head of the Justice Department for eight months. We now know that’s how long it takes to put the “bananas” in our suddenly banana republic, to take a once-envied agency and warp the rule of law to turn it into a politicized neutron bomb that will incinerate the enemies of Donald Trump while leaving his edifice of corruption intact.
An unfit, unconstitutional, and now unhinged president who famously cried out “Where’s my Roy Cohn?!” — the legendary McCarthyite reputation-destroyer and political fixer who tutored Trump in law-bending during the 1970s — has commissioned an army of Roy Cohns, with Barr as its general. As I write this, the all-but-assured impeachment of Trump, and his trial, will consume several gut-wrenching months. But whatever happens, removing the black, ugly stain that Barr and his henchmen have left on the Justice Department and its reputation for integrity will take years, and it will be very hard work.
The biggest question hanging over Barr’s reign of injustice is this: Which actual criminals are getting away with what crimes, while armies of federal lawyers instead chase down a president’s fictionalized conspiracy-mongering? Why are the top executives of Big Pharma — having pushed their addictive pain pills on Middle America while bringing death and misery to thousands of families — walking the streets as free men and checking their stock portfolios on their phones? How many lives would have been saved if federal law enforcement had not deliberately. and for a decade, ignored the warnings on domestic terrorism?
As America’s political divide widened, hate crimes surged across America — with reports to the FBI spiking by 17 percent in 2017, the year that Donald Trump and his rhetoric about “American carnage” entered the White House. Yet federal prosecutions for such offenses actually declined. Why? Seeking justice for hate crimes is not easy, nor does it jibe with the wider political narrative of the Trump administration. And it’s more fun, apparently, to chase the president’s enemies.
Look, in one sense it’s naive to think a Justice Department that’s run by a political appointee of the president is going to be completely apolitical. Elections have consequences. A Democratic AG is probably more likely to prosecute corporate polluters, while a Republican AG might prioritize, say, drug trafficking — but that’s the politics of ideas, not the politics of authoritarianism. Some Justice Department ideas are terrible, like the 1920 Palmer Raids led by then-AG A. Mitchell Palmer that arrested thousands of innocent recent immigrants in the name of anti-communism, and some AGs have been unethical, like Richard Nixon’s John Mitchell, who served 17 months in prison for his crimes aiding the reelection of the 37th president.
But America has never seen anything like this: an attorney general focused like a laser beam on abusing power to keep his corrupt boss in office — while punishing Trump’s rivals, real or perceived. Even Jeff Sessions — whose brief reign at Justice will be remembered for the utter amorality of separating migrant families at the border — still showed enough basic respect for democratic norms to recuse himself from the Russia probe and repel some of Trump’s worst instincts.
William Barr? Not so much. It’s no wonder that Barr — who should have recused himself from the whistle-blower complaint over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that blew up impeachment — tried to keep the complaint from reaching Congress, since he knew he’d be personally implicated in the biggest White House scandal since Watergate.
Even so, what we’ve learned in the two weeks since the whistle-blower story exploded regarding Barr and his extensive, time-consuming global manhunt to get friendly governments help him investigate our own FBI and CIA has been beyond gobsmacking. Barr met secretly on two separate occasions with Italian intelligence and was working closely with the Australians and the British. Trump encouraged the Ukrainian president to deal with Barr on something even more nefarious — a probe into 2020 Democratic rival Joe Biden. Barr claims he knew nothing — another thing for Congress to investigate.
The flip side of this coin is that Barr has the time for this because other bad guys are getting off the hook. That includes polluters — with referrals for environmental prosecutions under the Trump administration hitting a 30-year low. Meanwhile, under Sessions and Barr the department has also pretty much stopped the practice of consent decrees to curb police brutality. And with an assist from our rightward-leaning Supreme Court, voting-rights work has diminished sharply as well.
All of this has apparently freed up hundreds of billable hours to pursue out-and-out political hackery or fool’s errands like McSwain’s zeal for blocking a supervised injection site to deal with Philadelphia’s overdose crisis — an obsession that will cause human beings to needlessly die if a federal judge’s common sense does not survive Justice Department appeals. For more than 200 years, the Justice Department has striven — quite imperfectly — to carve out its freedom from undue political interference. Trump and his appointed lackeys blew that up in less than three years. God help the next responsible American president and attorney general who’ll have to sift through this flaming pile of rubble.